My home is on the other side of the partitioned land. I grew up during the time of Partition.

On monsoon nights, the Brahmaputra threatens us – crashing shores, suppressing screams. Furious winds come and play havoc with people’s wishes and simple dreams. Flying tin roofs smoothly chip away at the heads of trees, and try to touch the sky wrenching open the surface of the river. People eke out a precarious existence, always on the brink of destruction.

But strangely, in winter, this very river is a picture of stillness. Wide as a tortoise’s back in places. The river is mud-laden at places; at others, the water is knee-deep. The bank is full of grass and shrubs. A band of rabbits have arrived. Boys play on the new terrain. The winter is full of empty spaces. Trees maintain a respectful distance from each other. The land rises out of the water. In the lap of the earth sleeps rows and rows of boats – on their backs, on their sides. My first 14 years were spent here, in Jamalpur of erstwhile East Bengal.

I grew up just as a village lad does, amidst water, earth, and mud. There’s nothing extraordinary about it. I’ve caught fish standing knee-deep in paddy fields for hours together. I have rowed a boat alone in Sherpur. Once, a storm came when our boat was mid-river in the Brahmaputra. The river turned wild. Passengers in the boat started crying. I was petrified with fear. That was when I saw the boatman calmly take out two planks from the deck of the boat and fix them to the two ends of the boat. This saved the boat from capsizing. We were spared. I have seen this technique for saving boats in the sculptures of Borobudur. But that story is of a much later time.

I spent the first 14 years of my life in Jamalpur, in the district of Mymensingh of East Bengal.

In 1950, I had to leave the home I was born in, with my mother and brother. I had lost my father, Shibratan, five years earlier. We found shelter in the Ranaghat refugee camp in West Bengal. I will never forget the horrible memory of those times; the mere smell of bleaching powder can bring those days back even now.

We arrived there in summer and lived in one of the innumerable tents in the camp with a few other families. We had crossed the border to seek safety, but we faced only death. Nehru had visited us once; he was mobbed. I remember walking behind him with others. The pall of death – both physical and mental – in that camp still surrounds me.

Someone died of cholera. Everyone was panic-stricken after his death. All they wanted was decent food and water. But it was not to be found. And yet, these people once owned great deal of things. Even if not rich, they had led comfortable, dignified lives in their own homes. How greedy people can be is something I’ve seen in that camp. How easily they can sell their souls for paltry benefits.

People were suspicious of each other out of helplessness. They would sling mud at one another just to survive. Sometimes, it was to prove their superiority. They were not born this way – they had been radically changed by the Partition. The Partition gave birth to a new community – who loved to live on charity, playing cards and gossiping. They were used to getting concessions on the basis of their refugee identity.

As a refugee, I have myself asked a ticket-checker to let me travel without a ticket, and requested lower prices for my purchases in shops. Once, while buying clothes for myself, I told a saleswoman: “I’m a refugee, please reduce the price for me.” She didn’t. After that, I never introduced myself as a refugee to anyone.

I fell terribly ill once with dysentery, facing imminent death. My mother would apply ice wrapped in cloth on my stomach. My body had become skeletal. My vision was affected. But fortunately for me, a doctor we had known in our own sub-divisional town in Mymemsingh district’s Jamalpur was with us in the camp. He saved my like. Amitin injections had just become available. I was very weak. My head would spin every time I tried to walk. I couldn’t see anything when darkness fell, my younger brother had to hold my hand.

We had been registered as refugees at Ranaghat. Eventually, we were sent in groups to various neighbouring states of West Bengal. One such group, of which my family was a part, was sent to Bihar. Before our proper rehabilitation, however, we spent a long time in two separate camps: first, at Rajmahal, in the Santhal Parganas; then in Mokama, where we lived in huge abandoned military barracks. The trains which transferred us to these camps were called “Special Refugee Trains”.

From the Talbari railway station, we were taken to Rajmahal on a lorry. Here too we lived in an abandoned bungalow. And here, we were registered again under the Bihar Refugee Rehabilitation Programme. We were given two rupees, or one-and-a-half, for rations, depending on our age – the former for adults, and the latter for the younger people. Many inflated their age to claim the higher amount.

About 30-40 families lived together in this Rajmahal camp. This was a more relaxed life than in Ranaghat. With no work, people would laze around. The dole-dependent life had changed the character of the refugees. I continued to dream amidst this sloth all around me. But I had no one to share this dream with, which left me very lonely.

I had brought along my basic drawing tools: colour, brush, paper and a plank made of the wood of jackfruit tree. I used these to draw sometimes. One day, a Bengali officer of the Rehabilitation Ministry came to supervise the camp from Patna. He noticed my drawings. He suggested that I enrol for art school, saying he would arrange to get me a scholarship on the refugee quota. But how was I to enrol myself?

I observed that some camp refugees would bring rice to Rajmahal from Pakur in Rampurhat, because the price of rice was higher at Rajmahal. I joined them. The people who brought the rice at Rajmahal would arrange for the money as well. I didn’t have the strength to bear the weight of 20 kilos of rice on my shoulders. But still I did what I had to. One day, I was standing at Pakur railway station with my gunny sack of rice. A train to Calcutta stopped in front of me. A man called out to me from the window of a compartment. He was from Bihar. He gave me his address. I trusted him.

Shortly afterwards I bought myself a ticket to Calcutta with the money I had saved from selling rice. I found the man near Chitpur-Harrison Road, opposite Krishna cinema hall. He promised to help me, saying he would take me to Art College the next day and help me enrol there. He lived in a small room on the first floor of a building and slept on the floor. I stayed with him the next night, dreaming of college, confident that he would get me admitted. But he turned out to be a closet homosexual: I resisted his advances and sat on a broken chair the whole night; early next morning I quietly left before he woke up. The streets of Calcutta were being washed.

Out on the road, I decided to go to Santiniketan. I walked through Cheena-Bajar and reached Howrah Station. I can’t remember which train I took to Santiniketan. I walked straight from Bolpur Station to Kala Bhavan. I met a kind man near Gurupalli who took me to Shilpacharya Nandalal Bose. But I couldn’t get admission.

Nandalal advised me to open a paan-biri shop, probably keeping the uncertain future of artists in mind. He did have any sympathy for me. He treated me to tea and biscuit in his own home in Gurupalli. It was a winter evening. There was no train to Talbari before two-thirty in the morning. I was inadequately dressed for the Birbhum winter, wearing only a khaki half-sleeved sweater from the camp, besides a handloom shawl. As the night advanced, the cold became unbearable, forcing me to seek an empty gunny sack from a tea-shop that was still open at the station. I spent the night bundled up under the double layer of the shawl and gunny sack, which I returned before boarding the train.

A few days later we were sent from Rajmahal to Mokama. This was a refugee camp where refugees from other camps also gathered. Situated far from the city, the camp comprised of long military barracks surrounded by trees. It had tin roofs. The families apportioned themselves spaces in accordance with their size. It was the end of winter and beginning of summer. As the day advanced, the heat rose inside the barracks. Like Rajmahal, life was lazy here as well. We heard that we would be permanently rehabilitated somewhere else in Bihar. But no one knew when.

I needed 75 rupees a month, apart from food and lodging, if I were to study in Santiniketan. It was an enormous amount. But I could not apply for a refugee scholarship without admission. I sent a request to Kala Bhavan to study free there, but there was no reply.

Meanwhile, I managed to get a job from a camp contractor – two rupees a day for painting huge beams of steel. One day, a few refugee families decided to leave the camp and return to Calcutta. I joined them. My mother Ramdasi secretly sold her last bit of jewellery and gave me 30 rupees. I left for Calcutta again.

This time, I found myself a place to stay on Platform No 12 of Howrah Station. Refugees crowded the platform. I remained with the group I came from Bihar. They fed me. I found out about Art College here and also got myself admitted. In my admission form, I put down Platform No 12 as my address. It is said desire can overcome anything. It was June. The college session started from July. Admission forms were available only in June. I knew nothing of this before. But I came to Calcutta in June.

A few days later I secured a place to stay at the home of Kripashankar Dixit – an old acquaintance of my father’s, connected with his jute business. In exchange for staying nights, I did odd jobs for him. I applied for a refugee scholarship soon after getting admission. But it was hard to get Government approval.

I lived in No 4 Cheeni-patti in Burrabazar. I walked to and from the college every day. The nail in my sandal pierced through my skin and settled itself there. I didn’t feel the pain any more. joined college in 1951 and graduated in 1956. I am not going into the details of how I spent those years. Many others went through what I did – there’s nothing unique about it. Those of us who survived those terrible times were few, compared to the ones who were lost.

I am still not sure whether it was necessary to write this piece. I understand now the reason we left home. But I have never harboured hate for Muslims even after having forced to leave home. I still remember Wajid Ali sir, Nayeb Ali sir. Gafur Miya’s drawing class. My childhood friends Farid, Abu-Bakr, Moni, Mansur, Yousaf and Gasibul. I have preserved the letters Farid and Abu-Bakr wrote to me after I came here. I got in touch against with all of them recently. I remember Saleh Minchha from my Ajanta days. When I went to Kolkata for holidays back then, I would buy clothes for his children. Habib and Osman would cook for me.

I am an artist now. Many point out there are no human beings in my drawings. I try to find an answer for this.

People forget about death after being saved from imminent death. But the tune of death continues to play silently in the joy of the forgetting.

“Mrityur Michhil, Jiboner Jagaran”, excerpted from Deshbhag: Binash O Binirman, edited by Madhumoy Pal, Gangchil, translated from the Bengali by Rituparna Roy.